Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: National Museum

Walking Amongst the Dead


A decapitated lion in the Dead Zoo

Escaping from yet another Dublin shower today I found myself in the Dead Zoo.  I’ve fond memories of the Natural History Museum here, a museum of a museum with it’s moth eaten specimens leering out of wooden case after wooden case but it’s been closed for the last couple of years.  A tour of teachers, being shown the academic potential of somewhere that has never been anything other than educational, almost came a cropper when a back staircase collapsed under the weight of years.

It was closed immediately and remained so for years while it was made safe for a modern, and more litigious, public.  It finally reopened in April of this year, although the upper floors, with their cases of bugs and fishes will remain closed until someone can work out how to install wheelchair access to the Victorian building and deal with the problem of railings that are far too low for today’s obviously lemming like masses.

Natural history museums of their nature tend to hark back to an earlier age of discovery.  The golden age of entomological specimen gathering was in a time when people didn’t worry about endangered species and cut a murderous swathe through most of the animal population of the globe.  Bats with desiccated wings like onion skins, baby birds frozen in moth-eaten anticipation of food that never came and elephants with visible stitches fixing a premature disembowelling don’t fit easily with our queasy modern sensibilities.  Death imitating life can be a bizarre and macabre sight with fatal bullet wounds and sword marks carefully patched for display and family groups made up of animals that were born in different corners of the globe.

Dead Zoo zebra

Zebra foal

You won’t find multi media exhibits in the Dead Zoo or interpretive exhibitions aimed at progressive education, Dublin’s Natural History Museum is frozen in time … and all the better for it.

There are few places you can go today where you are effectively stepping back into time, into a different way of thinking, another age.  The museum was set up in 1857 to house the Royal Dublin Society’s growing collection of entomological specimens.   Dr Livingstone himself spoke at it’s inauguration.  The cases of international species on the first floor record, not just a search for knowledge but also the growth of an Empire.  As the British flag crossed more of the globe so the carcasses started to arrive from more far flung places.

I’ve been researching my family tree recently.  My dad’s family were in India before the British Raj working for the East India Company.  Looking into the glass eyes of an Indian deer today I realised it had been alive, had been running away from the hunter across a parched landscape when my grandfather was a small boy somewhere on the same subcontinent.  For a second it was a window into my own history.  Just for a second.  The Indian deer was straddling a stuffed fawn that had made the move from the living zoo to the dead one some time at the turn of the 20th Century.

Elsewhere the Victorian zeal for categorization is exemplified in a wall of glass frames housing the  impressive collection of R.M. Barrington.  Mr Barrington, whose picture sits on the wall beside his life’s work was the author of the snappily titled The Migration of Birds as observed at Irish Lighthouses and Lightships.


Dead Zoo dead chicksIt was a wonder there were any birds left to migrate after Mr Barrington’s thorough investigation.  The cards inside each case read like the shipping forecast.

On the back wall the skeletons of man and his closest relatives quietly proclaimed it’s faith in evolution while a nearby display showed our ascent through a parade of skulls passing through several million years of history.  Incongruously between them was the case of Pepper’s Ghost, a giant fish caught in 1861.  It was thought to be the largest trout ever caught until it was denounced by the Department of Fisheries a century later as an oddly marked salmon.  Pepper’s Ghost was relegated to a corner of the first floor, it’s usurper getting pride of place in the Irish collection of the floor below.

There are very few places like the Dead Zoo left.  Most have moved into the new century with interactive displays for children and the whole multi media experience.  Here in Dublin the most you’ll get are a couple of cabinets with drawers you can pull out, but if you’re looking for video presentations and a cafe you’re in the wrong place.  This is a museum of a different time and it’s a credit to the National Museum that the place has been left as such.  Where else can we step back in time and see things as our grandparents saw them?

Off the Point: Why Can’t you take Photographs in Irish Museums?

It’s Sunday evening and I don’t feel like talking about all matters legal with work looming on Monday morning, so I’m resurrecting an old tradition.  From here on in Sunday is to be a day of reflection…and possibly irritation.

To kick off a long standing annoyance the subject of photography in Irish museums and galleries.  Now the husband and I are recently back from a short break in Bordeaux.  There being not a lot to do in the town when you’re there doing nothing we ended up in the Musee d’Aquitaine.  Turns out that the history of the region goes back to Neanderthal times and Bordeaux itself has a history going back to the Romans.

Being a photographer, the husband had the camera with him and happily snapped away throughout the museum.  When we got back to Dublin we had a few days before either of us were back in work so we decided to go to the National Museum to have a look at the bog bodies (as you do).  As soon as you walk into the place there are signs forbidding photography of all kinds which just doesn’t seem very friendly.

After watching several tourists being barked at for trying to photograph the vaulted ceiling of the museum building we made some enquiries.  What’s the story?  You can walk into a museum in London or Paris or Prague and whip out a camera without a peep from the security guards but here in Ireland you need special permission to photograph the exhibits.

Over the years we’ve come up against the problem several times –  the husband usually has a camera somewhere about his person – and it’s always the same.  The one thing that isn’t the same is the explanation.

The OPW, apparently forbid photography because their properties keep appearing on EBay being flogged to unsuspecting Americans (allegedly).  The reason we were once given in the Natural History Museum was that it interfered with the sale of post cards.  In the National Museum last week we were told it was a copyright issue.  Apparently the 1928 Copyright Act made the National Museum the property of every man, woman and child in Ireland, all of whom would have to give permission before people could take photos.  Well it’s an interesting one anyway.

If you ask me it smacks of pure mean spiritedness but if there’s a relatively logical explanation I’d love to know it.  I understand banning flash photography when you have light sensitive exhibits but all cameras?

Even if there is a logical reason why photography is banned it seems like a daft rule.  If people are coming to Ireland from all over the world, used to taking photos to remember their trip it just doesn’t make sense.  Quite apart from anything else, two out of the three reasons we’ve been given are tied to a rather unattractive suspicion of the rest of mankind and an officiousness that’s just embarrassing.  I’d almost rather it was down to simple meanness.

I know it’s possible to make an appointment to come in and take photographs, certainly in the National Museum on Kildare Street, but last thing I heard, you had to give a good excuse.

If anyone out there knows by this prohibition is they please let me know.  Otherwise lets get the revolution started and all turn up armed with our Polaroids.  It might not be a big issue in a world economy that seems to be going bang right now but it’s the little things that count…and if the economy does do bang we’ll all have a lot more time to wander round museums…and at times like that a hobby is a good idea!

© 2020 Abigail Rieley

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑